As Armenia’s new government wrestles with how to move past a quarter-century of ill-governance and unaccountability, a popular international legal concept has become a buzzword: transitional justice.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has regularly deployed the term to describe his vision of reforming the judicial system. On May 24, parliament hosted public hearings to discuss the scope and applicability of transitional justice.
For advocates of transitional justice, the concept offers a means of creating a clean slate upon which to craft a better and more legitimate system of governance. It also may offer a way to reform the country’s institutions.
That struggle has been brought to the fore in recent battles between Pashinyan and the judicial system that have seen the prime minister attack senior judges as products of the former government.
But there remain questions over how the concept might be applied in Armenia. Long-time advocates of transitional justice argue that the proposed measures are too little, too late.
The concept can be a slippery one. The International Center for Transitional Justice, or ICTJ, a New York-based organization promoting the concept, says on its website that the phrase “refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.” It has been used in contexts like South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the lustration processes of security services in former Warsaw Pact states.
Ruben Carranza, a senior ICTJ expert, has been working with Armenia’s new authorities since shortly after they came to power last spring. Transitional justice in Armenia “can build the foundation for accountability and sustain it beyond the initial period of euphoria,” he said last year.
What that lofty aims can mean in practice in Armenia has remained unclear, and the authorities have yet to propose any specific legislation. But lawmakers are drafting on a working paper that will guide the process, said Maria Karapetyan, a member of parliament from the ruling coalition and a leading figure in the push for transitional justice, told Eurasianet.
One potential subject for transitional justice could be the highly contested politics of the 1990s.
“We cannot afford to reopen all the election ballots since 1991 to know if the elections were truly stolen,” Karapetyan said.
But Karapetyan said she envisions the process taking the form of a “memory commission” of sorts.
“Because we are dealing with competing narratives,” she said.
Other targets could be non-combat deaths in the military (259 in the period between 2010 and 2016, alone) and illegal confiscations of property by the government. The most prominent example of the latter is the forced displacement of hundreds of residents living in central Yerevan to clear space for the construction of the showcase Northern Avenue project.
The primary goal, Karapetyan said, “is the restoration of rights that have been violated en masse.”
What that restoration would entail is still under consideration, though some form of government payout and possibly civil forfeiture are on the table, she said.
There is one area that transitional justice won’t touch, she said: lustration of the security services.
“Lustration might have made sense when we were transitioning out of the Soviet Union and into an independent Armenia. But we don’t have that sort of a rupture,” Karapetyan said.
Parliament is expected to take the lead rather than the government, primarily with an eye to ensuring the success of Pashinyan’s so-called “economic revolution” and a favorable investment climate, Karapetyan said.
“For an economic revolution you need to have stability … Transitional justice assumes a certain shaking of the system, a certain instability,” she said. “You don’t want to scare away investors.”
While Pashinyan will not be involved in implementing a transitional justice system, he has embraced the idea. He has tended to frame it in narrower terms, however, as a means to reform the current judiciary, which is dominated by appointees of the previous order.
Pashinyan was especially incensed when a judge agreed to grant bail to Robert Kocharyan – a former president and the prime minister’s political nemesis – as he awaits trial on charges related to the breakup of violent protests in 2008. He cited transitional justice as a means of dealing with the problem.
Transitional justice, he said, was a “vital agenda for our country … to have a truly guaranteed independent judicial system in Armenia.”
Pashinyan called for “vetting” of current judges, a standard practice in transitional justice systems in other countries.
“The public should have complete information about their political connections and genealogy, property status, as well as about their personal and professional qualities manifested during the previous period,” he said.
A recent poll of Armenians’ trust in various institutions put the courts near the bottom of the list. That makes reform likely popular. And this could also have an institutional spillover effect.
“When the judiciary is independent, all of the other structures know that should they commit a violation or a crime, if it gets to court, they will be punished,” Karapetyan said.
Other moves taken by Pashinyan against the justice system have cast doubt on the sincerity of his intentions. After Kocharyan was let out on bail, he called on supporters to protest outside court buildings, an act that was widely criticized as political interference in the justice system. And the newest appointee to the Constitutional Court is a longtime political ally of the incumbent authorities who employed an unorthodox power grab to try to become the head of the court.
Some supporters of vetting and transitional justice, though, think that the process has not gone nearly far enough.
“Either they don’t understand themselves as revolutionaries, or maybe they see themselves as ‘velvet revolutionaries,’” said Artur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor office, in an interview with Eurasianet. “We must have vetting of every single state body from the police, to the military, to the national security service, to the schools and universities,” he said.
Sakunts expressed concern the process will not go deep enough.
“The body of law, the constitution, the structures built by and for authoritarianism cannot build a democracy,” he said.
Larisa Minasyan, director of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, told Eurasianet that the hearings held so far have been a good start but that they needed to be broadened, not only in scope but at the level of public engagement, as well. (OSF-Armenia has been supporting the process, including by bringing some of the transitional justice experts to Armenia.)
“In the past 15 years, the trust towards institutions, not only the judiciary, but all institutions, stands so low that any such process, whether it's vetting, or vetting and something more, would not restore public trust ... if it’s not a process built on education and consensus,” she said.
[Disclaimer: Eurasianet receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, among other donors. OSF is part of the Soros Foundations network. The Open Society Foundations-Armenia is a separate entity in the Soros network.]
Minasyan is adamant that transitional justice must be comprehensive and offer redress for the many violations of human rights that occurred under the previous government. Doing that is imperative, she said.
“Because anything built on unsound fundamentals will be flawed.”
Peter Liakhov is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.